The Power of the Dog:”I smell and I like it”
The Western genre is defined by stories about sprawling landscapes, land barons, Native Americans, water rights, revenge, gunslingers, shootouts and human endeavours. Rather than being a Western in a conventional sense, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog is a story of personal turmoil and human retribution told against the background of a Western ranch in Montana in 1925. It’s a time when the old West has transformed into a place where riding horses co-exists with horse-powered automobiles and social manners have been supplanted from the wilderness to towns.
Brothers Phil & George: The old West emerges into the new West
Brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) Burbank have built a successful ranching business. The Wild West has been tamed to a large degree and the brothers have entered a stage of their lives where they have learned through their mentor, Bronco Henry, whose spirit embodies the old West, how to run a ranch as a business rather than the techniques of surviving and taming the land. The landscape is impressive by anyone’s view. The towering mountains of Montana, filmed in Otago, New Zealand, form the backdrop that hints at the majesty of nature and the elements that can subdue human endeavours.
Phil Burbank & the Great Plains of Montana
The brothers are different in their demeanour, yet each relies on the other. They are like two sides of the same personality. Phil constantly requires George’s presence at all occasions, even when toasting a drink at dinner after a successful cattle drive.
George is a kind and gentle, almost shy, man who dresses well in a suit and bowtie and maintains good hygiene. Phil acts tough, maintains a sense of manliness, wears his animal-hide chaps always and displays a cruel disposition. He summarises himself when he states, “I smell and I like it.”
The dynamic between the two brothers is changed irrevocably when George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and they begin married life living in the Burbank brother’s vast mansion on the lonely Great Plains of Montana. Despite his gruff exterior, Phil's appearance and manners disguise a gentle side, although he prefers to hide any public display of his nature. He abraids people relentlessly, from George, who he calls Fatso, and the ranch hands to his brother George’s newlywed wife, Rose, and her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
George & Rose
Phil’s dismay at Rose’s presence is palpable. A whistle or a few notes on Phil’s banjo signal a threatening tone towards Rose’s intrusion into the brother’s managed life. Phil intimidates her to the point that she avoids him at any turn. She also succumbs to abusing alcohol to resolve her anxieties and fear. Peter, who manages to deflect the name-calling and abusive comments around his perceived effeminate mannerisms, is more concerned about his mother’s plight than his own discomfort.
At some stage he decides to deflect Phil’s malicious conduct by inviting Phil to imbue him with a sense of manliness in a similar way that Bronco Henry mentored Phil and George to become self-sufficient and modern business partners. Bronco Bill symbolises the nurturing hand from the spirit of the old West. Phil and Peter find a common ground in plaiting a complex, intertwined leather rope. The intricate braiding and tautness of the lariat translate directly to the taut relationships and complex interactions of the people in the homestead. The physical tension of the rope carries through to the people and their relationships.
Official Trailer The Power of the Dog
The Power of the Dog, in its basic meaning, captures Phil’s vicious nature. He is like a marauding dog that preys on the vulnerable. Rose, George, and Peter are all brutalised by Phil’s psychological and physical cruelty. Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog is elegiac in the sweeping nature of its emotions.
The Power of the Dog is worth watching once, and then seeing it again to consider the subtlety and intricacy of its messages. It’s superb.
The Power of the Dog
Screening now in selected cinemas & streaming on Netflix from 1 December 2021
Silver Lion Award for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival
Note: There has been quite a bit of commentary about a strong chance that The Power of the Dog could be nominated for Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director (Jane Campion) and Best Actor (Benedict Cumberbatch).
Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978)
A stunning movie depicting life in America at the turn of the century and a story of love and murder told through the voice of a child and expressive images of nature in 1916.
Couple Bill and Abby, who pretend to be siblings, find work on a rich farmer's land. When Bill learns that the farmer is ill, he asks Abby to marry the farmer so she can inherit his fortune after he dies.
The cycle of seasons in nature and the magnificent cinematography complement the tale of love, heartache, retribution and betrayal.
Official Trailer Days of Heaven (Paramount Movies Digital)